Beneath the throb of helicopter rotors, an icy landscape comes into view. The pilot banks it sharply and sets it down. It's time to go for a hike on the Franz Josef Glacier. Robin Barton reports
If you thought that glaciers were inaccessible, locked away in remote mountain ranges or geography text books, think again.
Uniquely, the Franz Josef Glacier on the west coast of the South Island descends to almost sea level and is just a few kilometres from the nearest village. From here it’s possible to take a heli-hike onto the ice, after a 10-minute flight up the valley.
The glacier gets its present name from Emperor Franz Josef I of Austria, being named in his honour in 1865 by Julius Von Haast, an explorer who was far from the first to discover the glacier. The Maori name for the glacier is Ka Roimata o Hine Hukatere – or ‘the tears of Hine Hukatere’.
In a legend of the Makawhio people, Hine Hukatere was a strong and fearless women who adored mountain climbing and she persuaded her lover, Wawe, to accompany her only for an avalanche to sweep him from the mountainside.
The tears of broken-hearted Hine Hukatere flowed down the mountain and were frozen by the gods into a river of ice as a mark of her grief.
Today, because the Franz Josef is what geologists call a ‘dynamic’ glacier – it advances and retreats up to 200m metres a year, making it one of the world’s fastest-moving glaciers – visitors can only step onto it with guides, which is where the helicopter comes in.
Weather permitting, operators fly people up to the Pinnacles section of the upper glacier to land near a forest of ice formations.
After being dropped off by the helicopter, walkers will have around two hours on the ice, following a moderately challenging route – crampons and waterproofs are provided.
What is immediately noticeable is the sound of running water: it’s all around, in waterfalls running down the valley sides and deep beneath the glacier itself, feeding the freezing Waiho River with fine particles of rock dust, known as glacial flour.
It’s a reminder that the glacier is carving its way through rock. In the last ice age, 15,000 years ago, the Franz Josef Glacier reached all the way to the sea and the moraine (rock debris) it left can still be seen. Until the 1980s the glacier was retreating, but it appears to be advancing again, at its own pace.
You can also walk or cycle through the rainforest in the valley below the glacier. The Te Ara a Waiau Walk/Cycleway starts from the fire station at the south of town and takes around an hour to reach the glacier car park, another way to appreciate the contrast between the rainforest at the foot of the valley and the ice-capped horizon above it.
High50 has partnered with Tourism New Zealand to bring you this guide. To discover more about New Zealand and to book, visit newzealand.com.